The Ethics of Innovation Webinar

While most of my posts so far have focused on job hunting, it’s not my intention to focus on it exclusively.  So today, I want to talk a little bit about the webinar I attended yesterday, “The Ethics of Innovation,” which was co-sponsored by OCLC and Library Journal (LJ).  But before I do, since I know many of you found this blog looking for job-hunting information, it’s worth that there are a good number of free webinars in the library world, and to attend most of them, all you need to do is register ahead of time.  They’re a great way for new librarians and library students to hear about some of the current developments and trends, and also to network with existing librarians.

So, moving on to the actual webinar….Moderator Wayne Bivens-Tatum (Princeton), and panelists Gary Price ( and Liza Barry-Kessler (Privacy Council, LLC) led a great talk about the crossroads that libraries find themselves at, and the constant ethical questions that are raised by ongoing innovation, particularly with regard to technology.  There was also a good discussion on Twitter – you can search for the hashtag #ethicsIQ.

Some of the take-away points and questions that were raised:

Today, libraries play many roles.  We aren’t simply distributors of information.  We can be publishers, technology consultants, content gateways, service providers, social hubs, and gatekeepers.

  • By gatekeepers, we don’t mean in the traditional sense, where we protect the books and other physical objects.  Rather, we mean that we want to share information with users when and where the user wants it.
  • By technical consultants, we don’t mean that we turn into the help desk.  However, we are able to assist users with basic tasks such as setting up email accounts, navigating a typical webpage, and printing documents.
  • Users expect innovation and will go elsewhere to find it if they don’t feel that libraries are keeping up.

With regard to library services, increasing the ease of use unfortunately tends to also increase the ease of misuse.  For everything wonderful technology can provide, there are also potential negatives – the largest being having private information such as user data fall into the wrong hands.  This leads to the question of what are we required to teach our patrons about ethical use of resources?  How do we walk the line between being a content provider and being the copyright police (which most agreed was a bad idea)?

  • Given that most electronic and digital materials aren’t stored in our physical library spaces, what are our ethical responsibilities regarding the use of these materials?
  • How can we partner with our vendors rather than playing cops for them or ignoring ethical violations all together?
  • Computers in libraries have raised a number of “pass-through” ethical issues.  Library computers are often used to access non-library sites, where users engage in behavior such as spamming, cyber-bullying, and illegal mass downloading.  Does the library have any responsibilities in these areas?

To what extent are libraries responsible for what patrons do with the information that they access from our resources?

  • This one raised a lot of discussion on Twitter.  Some people felt that librarians’ primary responsibility was to find the patron the info, and that we can’t be held responsible for what the patrons do with it.  Others advocated a more pro-active approach…while we certainly can’t, and in my opinion, shouldn’t, be held responsible if a patron does something illegal with information obtained in a library, we can and should be part of their education regarding copyright and privacy practices (and I said education, not policing, lest I find myself mis-interpreted).
  • The traditional view of libraries and privacy focuses on protecting user privacy and user data with regard to internal library resources.  A more educational view of libraries and privacy focuses on educating users about privacy issues that affect them inside and outside of the library.

It’s really important for libraries and librarians to know and understand their vendor contracts and licenses.  You and the vendor should have a clear sense of your library’s goals before you agree to any contracts.  You should also understand what the vendor’s goals are.  As Gary Price pointed out, vendors aggregate and collect TONS of user data, which is highly valuable to a number of people for a variety of reasons.  Understand what they are doing with your patron data before you sign anything.

Libraries should have an ethics policy/strategy, and it should be evaluated and updated regularly as new technologies emerge.  Too often, we only look at these policies once every ten years, or after a problem has surfaced.  We could probably save ourselves a number of headaches with more consistent updates.

Ethical issues and legal issues are not the same.  We can all point to laws that are or have been unethical, and we often engage in behavior that is technically illegal but we don’t find it to be unethical.  The presenters offered the example of sharing a PDF of a journal article with a friend who works at another library or college that doesn’t subscribe to a particular journal or database.  Many of us would do this without hesitating – we’d look at it as helping a friend out.  But, in the eyes of the law, it is piracy, of the same ilk as DVD piracy…something most of us would probably refuse to engage in.

If anyone else attended the webinar and wants to share their impressions, I’d love to hear them.